Is it OK to let your child see you cry?
Is it OK to let your child see you cry? Image Credit: Unsplash

The first time I saw my mother cry, I was about 6 years old. In an effort to keep me out of her hair, she had tasked me with the job of cleaning our old and woefully out-of-tune piano, played by no one, and purchased merely to eat up the dead space in our vast living room.

I set about cleaning, dipping a rag into a bowl of milk and carefully wiping down the ivory keys. Milk, according to '70s-era design magazines, made ivory, well, ivory-er, and I was hard at work when my father stumbled onto the scene.

Seeing me wasting his hard-earned money really hit a sour note with my dad, who was normally silly and easygoing. "Susan!" I remember him yelling. "Get in here!" I had never before seen my parents argue, let alone raise their voices, and when my mother ran off, I found her in the laundry room, literally crying over spilled milk.

She said all the right things, assuring me it wasn't my fault, that she and my father would be just fine, and they weren't getting a divorce. Yet for me, realizing that my strong and willful mother could be reduced to tears was and remains a stunning incident. It was also an isolated one; as I grew up, I had a better chance of spotting a unicorn than seeing my mother's wet cheeks ever again.

The whole gamut of tears

Unlike my mother, I don't huddle by our dryer for a private meltdown. I cry often and openly. Happy tears, sad tears, ugly tears, tears of frustration, tears borne out of anger. The whole gamut of tears. After 14 years of marriage, my husband, ever the dry eye, is used to it by now. But I have to stop and wonder about our 9-year-old son Leo.

Instead of having just one "laundry room" moment seared into his memory bank, Leo has dozens. Which raises an important question: Should I turn off the waterworks?

"I think it's always good for parents to show a full range of emotion," said Rachel Altvater, a Washington-area psychologist specializing in child and adolescent mental health. "We want to normalize sadness and disappointment for our children. Crying is actually really healthy for our bodies because [the stress hormone] cortisol is released in our tears."

Besides, she said, kids intuitively know when something's off. "Not showing your unapologetic, authentic self can make you untrustworthy as a parent."

When I asked whether crying in front of a son is any different than crying in front of a daughter, Altvater acknowledged that historically, the message to boys is to be tough, to man up. "Anger and aggression is more socially acceptable in males," she said, which made me think about my husband as a teenager. Essentially fatherless after his parents divorced, Karl was the man of the house, and with that role came a knack for compartmentalizing his whirlwind of emotions.

Do dads have a duty to cry in front of sons?

When I asked Altvater whether Karl is sending the wrong message by holding back his tears, she told me, "It's definitely a possibility." If Leo did see him cry, she said, it would be a beautiful message. "A father crying in front of a boy who has received signals that crying is for 'sissies' can begin to challenge this long-standing cultural belief."

On the bright side, Altvater continued, the media nowadays is doing a great job portraying male emotional pain." As evidence, she pointed to none other than Harry Styles.

A few hours after our call, Altvater sent me a link to a TikTok video. In it, Styles stops mid-concert to wish a young fan named Daniel a happy 10th birthday. In what absolutely should be everyone's response to being called upon by Mr. Watermelon Sugar himself, Daniel begins to weep with what I can only assume are tears of joy.

"First of all, let me tell you one thing," says Styles after first apologizing for embarrassing the kid. "Crying is very manly. Being vulnerable is manly, Daniel." Before he resumes the show, Styles offers a parting gift. "You're a good man, Daniel."

I would like to think that it was one of Harry's parents who taught him this level of compassion. "This is something that he's learned," Altvater assured me.

She was talking about Leo's tendency to fetch the box of tissues when I look ready to blow, but she could have just as easily been referring to Styles. "Leo comes to nurture you because that's what he's learned from you."

The connection between crying and empathy

Before I start campaigning for Mother of the Year, Altvater has a few provisos. Other than being mindful of cultural beliefs around crying, there is reason for concern if a parent is crying excessively. "If a parent is depressed, for example, it's likely that he or she will struggle to be emotionally available to their child," she explained. "If the child is seeing a parent in distress, a child might feel unsafe or wonder if they're to blame."

I'm pretty sure Leo didn't feel responsible the last time he caught me crying. I was Zooming with a dear friend, sharing our respective stories of a parent's decline - my mother, his father - at the cruel hands of dementia. There is, these days, this year, so much sorrow.

"I'm not a big crier, generally," admitted my friend Emily, the mother of two boys, one in Leo's fourth-grade class. "I think I cried in front of them when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died," she continued. "But that might be it."

When I asked her how they responded, she said, "Total indifference."

Perhaps some parents, like Emily, simply aren't big criers. They don't, to use a word Altvater brought up frequently during our call, "model" or outwardly express strong emotions in front of their children. And some, like me, do.

It is a parent's job to teach her children empathy. As much as I want Leo to be a good kid, I also want him to grow into a good man. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time feeling like an outsider - picked on for being too sensitive, too quick to cry, too easily hurt. "Why must you always wear your heart on your sleeve?" my mother once asked me. At the time, I took her question as a mandate. To protect myself. To hide what was soft. To woman up. But over the years I realized that my mother and I were built so differently.

What the child thinks of seeing a parent cry

The other day, I asked Leo what it felt like for him to see me cry. "Hmmm," he said, thinking. "Hmmm." He soon recalled the August we spent at my family's beach house in Connecticut. My brother and I had been fighting about something petty that, in hindsight, was really about something much deeper. "You were crying on the phone with Uncle David," Leo said.

I flashed back to that moment, Leo sitting on our staircase, his little body shaking, his face all red and blotchy. Leo adores my brother, so he stayed close by, watching a parade of emotions march over my face: sadness, anger, despair, grief and, ultimately, forgiveness and relief.

"If it really touches my heart," said Leo, "I'll cry with you."

Now - as a mother myself, and after suffering loss and setbacks and many disappointments - I realize that my mother's attitude, geared toward self-preservation, has another side. Being tough doesn't preclude being tender.

Through Leo, I've seen the flip side and learned the value of nurturing a little boy's natural drift toward empathy, concern and vulnerability. And it never fails to bring me to tears.

Cathy Alter's most recent book is the anthology "CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush."